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High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920

High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920

Charles Musser
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 386
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  • Book Info
    High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920
    Book Description:

    The entrepreneur of phonograph concerts and motion-picture programs Lyman H. Howe was the leading traveling exhibitor of his time and the exemplar of an important but until now little examined aspect of American popular culture. This work, with its numerous and lively illustrations, uses his career to explore the world of itinerant showmen, who exhibited all motion pictures seen outside large cities during the 1890s and early 1900s. They frequently built cultural alliances with genteel city dwellers or conservative churchgoers and in later years favored "high-class" topics appealing to audiences uncomfortable with the plebeian nickelodeons. Bridging the fields of American studies and film history, the book reveals the remarkable sophistication with which exhibitors created their elaborate, evening-length programs to convey powerful ideological messages. Whether depicting the Spanish-American War, the 1900 Paris Exposition, or British colonialism in action, Howe's "cinema of reassurance" had many parallels with the music of John Philip Sousa.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7272-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-11)

    As the nineteenth century neared its close, a phonograph exhibitor and motion picture entrepreneur toured northeastern Pennsylvania and New England boasting that he was “the Barnum of them all.” Although Ke had enjoyed only a tentative, regional success over the previous fifteen years, wrapping himself in the mantle of Phineas T. Bamum’s greatness would soon prove unnecessary, even inappropriate. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Lyman H. Howe would marshall his own talents’ create his own legend, and become America’s foremost traveling motion picture exhibitor—a title he could credibly claim for the next twenty years. For Americans from...

  6. 2 Traveling Exhibits: Howe’s Early Years, 1856-1890
    (pp. 12-21)

    The touring of informative, educational exhibits has a long history in the United States, dating back at least until the early nineteenth century. By the 1830s, many managers were traveling the country with a variety of curiosities. In 1835, Barnum purchased and exhibited Joice Heth—an ancient, partially paralyzed slave said to be George Washington’s nurse. Touring New York and New England, Barnum enjoyed substantial profits as she astounded patrons with details of the first president’s early life. The distinction between gossip and history may have been questionable, but Heth was also a biological wonder, believed to be 161 years...

  7. 3 Photographers of Sound: Howe and the Phonograph, 1890-1896
    (pp. 22-46)

    The demonstration of technological inventions found new scope with the phonograph concert. Unlike the telegraph and the telephone, which enjoyed brief vogues on the lecture circuit, the phonograph proved a more lasting vehicle fox amusement.¹ Although these concerts, like many kinds of nineteenth-century entertainment, are now forgotten, hundreds of phonograph exhibitors entertained Americans in the 1890s. Daniel Cxi-trom has traced the development of media in American culture by focusing on the telegraph, moving pictures, and television. The disjunctions among these technological forms of communication are so severe as virtually to defy any sense of continuity.² However, the phonograph played a...

  8. 4 Lifelike Pictures: Howe’s Animotiscope, 1896-1897
    (pp. 47-68)

    The addition of projected motion pictures to Howe’s programs did not at first appear to be a radical break from previous practice. The new technology had been conceived as an extension of the phonograph, and only over a three-year period did Howe gradually supplant the old with the new. This shift, however, spawned far-reaching changes in Howe’s program. Motion pictures, for example, curtailed the operational aesthetic of his previous shows. Howe may have explained the principles of motion picture projection, but he was no longer able to demonstrate the complete process of filmmaking, since he lacked production capabilities. Nevertheless, his...

  9. 5 Culture in Conflict: Howe Moves into the Opera Houses, 1897-1899
    (pp. 69-93)

    By the 1897–1898 theatrical season, traveling exhibitors usually directed their efforts to one of three distinct cultural groupings: church-oriented, moralistic conservatives, overwhelmingly Protestant; lovers of urban, commercial, popular culture; or advocates of a refined, elite culture. Although the initial novelty of motion pictures had transcended many class and cultural divisions,¹ these distinctions were soon reasserting themselves in the motion picture field. This is evident in our survey of motion picture exhibitions in the U.S. and Canada (excluding major urban centers) for the fall of 1897.² (See Appendix B.) The most popular motion picture program listed was the veriscope’s presentation...

  10. 6 Hard Times for the Roadmen: Lyman H. Howe, the Premier Traveling Exhibitor, 1899-1902
    (pp. 94-126)

    Howe assumed a unique role in American cinema between 1899 and 1902. Although not the only traveling exhibitor, as he would sometimes claim, he was the only one to play commercial opera houses on a consistent basis. His new position can be most profitably understood within a broader context of exhibition. Differences between exhibition services and traveling exhibitors had increased by the turn of the century. At first both had offered motion picture programs of similar length, Less than twenty minutes. By 1899, some traveling showmen were presenting an evening’s entertainment composed almost entirely of films. In contrast, urban exhibitors...

  11. 7 The Proliferation of Traveling Exhibitors: Howe Forms Multiple Companies, 1903-1905
    (pp. 127-159)

    The motion picture field enjoyed renewed prosperity by the end of 1903. Not only was the number of vaudeville theaters rising, but the percentage of such theaters showing films was increasing dramatically. This expansion was facilitated by changing methods of film distribution and exhibition. The Miles brothers and the Kinetograph Company had begun to rent films directly to vaudeville theaters, which bought a projector, trained their electrician to run it, and simply rented a new reel of films each week. The old exhibition services that had once provided projector, projectionist, and films became renters. This commercial innovation lowered the cost...

  12. 8 The Nickelodeon Crisis: Howe Moves in to the Big Cities, 1905-1908
    (pp. 160-189)

    By 1905, Motion pictures had filled established amusement formats—theaters, arcades, carnivals, summer parks—to the bursting point. Vaudeville entrepreneurs and traveling showmen were intruding on each other’s turf. Vaudeville with moving pictures had opened in many cities previously served only by traveling showmen. Howe, for example, had to contend with it in Reading (the Orpheum), Troy (Proctor’s Griswold Theater), Gloversviile (Family Theater), and Poughkeepsie (Family Theater), as well as in Wheeling, West Virginia (Bijou Theater). Special Sunday motion picture shows and penny arcades also appeared in many localities. Correspondingly, ambitious itinerant showmen were making appearances in major cities.


  13. 9 Motion Pictures under Attack: Howe Provides a Model Cinema, 1908-1911
    (pp. 190-222)

    Reformers, ministers, and cultural guardians questioned the cinema’s social role with unprecedented urgency in the new era of nickelodeon theaters. Local officials often found the picture houses unsafe. In this respect Wilkes-Barre was not unusual. When a building inspector rummaged through its four nickelodeons in late November 1907, he concluded they were firetraps. The Dreamland had red lights indicating exits where none actually existed. The Empire, owned by the same firm, had unmarked fire exits that were locked and debris in the alleyway outside. Across the street, the Star Theater had an unmarked exit almost completely blocked by the canvas...

  14. 10 A New Generation of Roadmen: Howe Faces Renewed Competition, 1911-1915
    (pp. 223-257)

    Although commentators had declared that the days of the old-time traveling exhibitor were over, such did not prove to be entirely the case. A few managed to survive at the margins of the film industry, while others joined them. This modest revival was largely attributable to the automobile. In the past, most exhibitors had traveled by railway and only screened in towns along the tracks. Now they could easily drive to out-of-the-way places that were too small to support a picture house. The Heavens brothers of Cleveland took up traveling exhibition in 1911. They had accumulated the necessary finances by...

  15. 11 Later Years: 1916-1933
    (pp. 258-275)

    Traveling exhibition remained a significant form of motion picture distribution until the end of the “silent era,” i.e., of films without synchronized recorded sound. As the Hollywood industry was consolidated between 1914 and 1917 and applied the regular release system to most feature-length dramatic films, it fostered several increasingly distinct practices. Road-showing continued as part of Hollywood’s marketing repertoire for “specials.” For a blockbuster feature film, units would tour with effects truck, orchestra, and advance representative. Nine such companies presented Griffith’s Intolerance in the United States during 1916.¹ The process, however, was fraught with risk. Variety later claimed that between...

  16. 12 Conclusion
    (pp. 276-282)

    The traveling motion-picture lecturer continues to this day. Burton Holmes entertained his audiences with motion pictures into the 1950s. By that time, Jay Leyda recalls, the Holmes travelogue had become cliched and hokey.¹ The National Audubon Society provided its local organizations with speakers and films into the late 1970s. Given in nontheatrical settings, the showings served as social gathering for friends, with tea and cake afterwards.² The wide diffusion of the 16 mm format, which reduced costs and made projection in nontheatrical settings much easier, after World War II revitalized the practice of traveling exhibition. Within the last ten or...

  17. Appendix A. Howe: A Civic Leader
    (pp. 283-288)
  18. Appendix B. Exhibition Patterns among Traveling Motion Picture Showmen, 1896-1904
    (pp. 289-290)
  19. Appendix C. Selected Film Exhibitions in Wilkes-Barre, 1896-1919
    (pp. 291-294)
  20. Appendix D. Selected Film Exhibitions in Philadelphia, 1908-1916
    (pp. 295-296)
  21. Appendix E. Howe Exhibitions in Selected Cities
    (pp. 297-299)
  22. Appendix F. Howe Filmography
    (pp. 300-307)
  23. Appendix G. Documents
    (pp. 308-314)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 315-354)
  25. Index
    (pp. 355-372)